Authors: Robert Ward
“Yeah, well, maybe I should have,” Bob said. “‘Cause this poverty shit is getting old, right?”
“Ah, you don’t mean it, Bob. It’s not in you. You’re a working-class hero.”
Dave opened his arms and gave Bob a drunken hug. Bob felt himself blush. Jesus, Dave could get sentimental when he was loaded. But what the hell, now that all his other friends had run for the burbs, and Meredith had cashed in with Rudy, what it came down to was Dave McClane was his best friend. He managed to give Dave an embarrassed little hug back.
“Well, I gotta get back, Dave-o,” Bob said.
“Sure you don’t want to take a run down to the Lodge?” Dave said. “Heard there’s going to be a little birthday party tonight for Lou Anne.”
“Ah, the fair Lou Anne Johnson,” Bob said. “You make your move on that girl yet?”
Now it was Dave’s turn to blush. He’d had a crush on the buxom waitress at the local artists’ bar, the Lodge, for over three months, but was too shy to tell her.
“Not yet,” Dave said. “You think she’s a little young for me?”
“Young?” Bob said. “She’s almost forty. Damn cute, too. You ought to tell her you’re crazy about her before some other guy gets there.”
“Well, maybe I will,” Dave said. “What about you, Bob? When are you gonna find a new woman?”
“Never,” Bob said, moving to the door. “I’m all done with that.”
In his mind’s eye he suddenly had an image of Dave and Meredith, Rudy and himself … all of them young, marching in the streets to fight city hall from building the beltway through Fells Point. Young, angry, dangerous … friends and lovers. He shook his head and the image floated away. There was a time when he liked to recall his romantic radical youth, but now it was too painful to remember.
“I’ll see you at the Lodge Thursday night, bud,” Bob said, as he got to the door and looked out into the icy street.
“Long live the Rockaholics,” Dave said.
That was the name of Bob’s oldies band. The Lodge was their one steady gig and Dave was their number one fan. But then he had always been Bob’s number one fan, ever since they were kids and Dave had been a roadie for Bob’s old band, the Nightcats.
“Take care, bro,” Bob said.
“You too, bro,” Dave said.
Bob stumbled, half-crocked, out into the freezing night. He felt warmth and a brotherly tug toward Dave, but he felt something else, too. Something like contempt. After all, any man who could be
fan … well, that made him lower than Bob himself on the food chain. And since Bob felt like a failure and a sack of shit, what then did that make Dave?
As he walked past the narrow row houses toward his own place on Aliceanna Street, Bob was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of dread. This was it, truly all there was. After all the sound and fury of his activist youth, fighting city hall, giving his life—his
fucking life—for some ideal of equality, some dim utopian fantasy, this was what it had come down to. A few patients, barely enough money to scrape by, and crummy well drinks with Dave. Meanwhile, all his other old pals, the once-radical shrink gang, lived in the burbs and watched their kids grow, go to college, and prosper. Jesus, some of his old college friends were already grandparents. And most of them were multimillionaires.
Christ, Bob thought, he’d been as brilliant as any of them. But somehow, for all his youthful brains and passion, he’d missed the boat. Not that he was all
old; he was still in his early fifties. Which meant he was just old enough to know that he had used up his store of luck, or to put it like the old Marxist he once was, his capital was spent, the workers of the world had never revolted, and, face it, his life as a useful member of society, even as marginal as it had been for the past ten years, was now kaput, finished, ancient history.
In the past month, Bob’s last grant from Johns Hopkins Hospital had dried up. Named after his old mentor and radical psych teacher, the Roger E. Director Grant had been renewable yearly, and when things were tight it had always pulled him through. But this year the board had denied Bob’s request and when he’d petitioned them they’d written him a fucking e-mail, saying that “the grant was for groundbreaking new work in the field of psychology,” and that “a person as well-established” as Bob couldn’t be “eligible for it in the new millennium.”
Bob didn’t have to be a CIA decode specialist to know what that really meant: “You’re an old washed-up hack and if you’re not rich and famous by now, it’s not our job to fund your worthless fucking practice.”
God help him … he didn’t know what he was going to do next. If only he’d sold out years ago, taken a job as a corporate shrink … back when he had heat on his career. The thought of being broke, going into his dotage eating at Denny’s, getting the early bird special with the old-age pensioners. Wearing a spit-mottled cardigan sweater, wandering around the pier at Fells Point, staring through the restaurant windows at happy, successful people who were eating oysters and crab cakes.
Oh Jesus, such thoughts made him panic. It was like someone had sent electricity through his body. Juiced him up … with a zap of fear.
It hadn’t always been this way, of course.
No, it hadn’t been so bad when Meredith was still around. But living alone, there were some nights he thought about,
thought about, downing a whole bottle of Ambien and checking out for good. Leave the Gandhi bit for some young sucker with a need to save this sad, violent world.
Bob walked on, feeling a pain in his right knee, an old lacrosse injury from his days at Hopkins. Lacrosse. Running all day in scrimmages and then
a killer practice doing another two miles on the track. Was it possible that he had ever been that young? Or was that merely a dream?
A dream like his marriage …
In spite of what he’d said to Dave, about how he’d been blind-sided by Meredith’s defection, the truth was he’d seen it coming. It was as much his own fault as Rudy’s (the son of a bitch). If he hadn’t gotten into the goddamned poker games with Ray Wade, fat Lenny Bloom the social worker, and their buddies. If he hadn’t lost his life savings in his early middle-aged “swinging guy” period. It had all seemed so innocent when they started. Just a few old friends getting together once a week for a low-stakes game. But disastrously for Bob, his little hobby soon blossomed into a full-bore gambling addiction. The excitement of the games gave him a rush, like the wild old days, fighting the cops. And for a while, maybe six months, he’d been on a tear, coming home with his old corduroys stuffed with bills. He’d become so cocky that he’d talked Ray Wade into getting him into “bigger games,” a favor slick Ray was only too happy to grant. After all, Bob was a cardsharp’s dream. He was a bold and reckless player. No matter what lousy cards he held in his hand, he always managed to convince himself that the next one he drew would be the one that filled an inside straight. When these moments of “inspiration” came, it was almost as though he heard a voice from, well, not God exactly, Bob didn’t believe in God, but from a higher power of
kind. (Was it the same higher power that had convinced him he had to live a noncompromising life as an urban saint? Probably.) Thus “inspired,” Bob would suddenly throw caution and common sense to the wind. He raised the stakes and stayed in, until the bloody end. It was a huge rush to play cards that way, brave, dangerous. Poker made him feel alive, gutsy, and, most of all, young.
It also made him broke.
By the end of one solid year of wild drinking and poker playing, Bob and Meredith’s life savings had dwindled down to sub-nothing. All their retirement plans, which had once included Ambrose Bierce-like dreams of moving to Mexico and buying a cottage in San Miguel de Allende, or homesteading in economical and left-friendly Costa Rica, were now washed up.
Poverty at this precarious age was a bitter pill to swallow. Meredith wept at night, tossed and turned in bed. She railed and screamed at him until she was all screamed out. Then one day three years ago she’d
Out and in with Bob’s old friend and current nemesis, the pop shrink star Dr. Rudy Runyon.
Now she lived in luxury in Rudy’s 1920s mansion in Roland Park, played tennis every day at the Roland Park Country Club, and confined her trips downtown to occasional stop-ins at the shelter on South Broadway, where Bob worked a couple days a week, and where Rudy made yearly public appearances to keep up his image as the champion of the homeless.
Bob let himself into his little row house, took off his coat, and flopped on the faded yellow couch. He reached for the vodka bottle on the sideboard and poured himself a stiff drink.
God, the agony of it, getting old with the same depressing patients.
He took a sip and reminded himself not to go down that dark path. Don’t hate your patients. No, no, that was no good at all. After all, he did
to help them, didn’t he? He worked his butt off trying to get the manicurist Ethel Roop to keep her ballooning weight down. But every time they seemed to be making some headway, she’d relapse. The last time had been just a few days after Christmas. She’d gone on an eggnog-and-cinnamon roll binge and gained fifteen more pounds. Christ, she’d be better off taking some kind of new designer diet pill than talking to him. A pill he couldn’t prescribe because he wasn’t a psychiatrist. And what about Perry Swann, the masturbating bus driver? Hadn’t he worked forever to get him to see that his problems were related to his unfinished business with his mother, who’d sexually molested him when he was three years old? But what good had this startling insight done? Two weeks ago Perry had jerked off in front of a woman just outside the Greyhound bus terminal and been busted for public lewdness. Which meant suspension from his job, a trial, and probably a cancellation of his health insurance, and
meant bye-bye Bobby Wells. Another patient down the tubes and how the hell would he find a new one to replace him?
Of course, there were his elderly patients at Church Home Hospital and St. Mary’s shelter, but those were welfare recipients for which he received a small stipend from the Department of Welfare.
No, what he needed were some more paying patients.
Christ, face it, the only interesting (and solvent) patient he had nowadays was the haunted and paranoid art dealer, Emile Bardan, who usually sat through the fifty-minute hour terrified by fears that Bob hadn’t been able to help him with at all. And what if Emile decided Bob was useless? What then?
Bob couldn’t bear thinking about it.
He’d done it, all right. Royally fucked up his life.
What he needed, he thought, as he headed upstairs to his Ambien and blessed oblivion, was a miracle. That was it. Some way to see things anew. Life looked at through a new pair of glasses, a vision that would spring him into action.
But what in God’s name that vision might be, the good shrink Bob Wells didn’t have a clue.
On the surface, at least, Emile Bardan seemed a brilliant and successful guy. He owned a lot of real estate, ran a new art gallery that dealt in antiquities a few blocks away on South Broadway, and lived in a smartly refurbished end-of-the-row nineteenth-century redbrick row house in nearby Canton. He was thin and handsome, in his thirties, obviously well-educated, and Bob gathered from his offhand comments that he did quite well with the ladies.
But for all of that, Bardan was a terrified man. He was obsessed by the recurrent feeling that his enemy and rival, a Brit named Colin Edwards, was going to steal one of his prized acquisitions, the mask of Utu. Indeed, the fear so overwhelmed him that Emile was no longer sure if he was in his right mind.
“Perhaps,” he told Bob, “I’m just paranoid, but maybe … maybe it’s really going to happen. That’s what’s driving me nuts. I just don’t know.”
As a hungover Bob made breakfast the next morning, he remembered what Emile had told him about the mask.
“It’s a mask of the Sumerian sun god,” Emile explained, sitting cross-legged and nervously wringing a monogrammed linen handkerchief in his hands.
He picked up a large art book he’d brought with him and brought it over to Bob, who looked down at a color photo of the mask.
Bob knew very little about art, but one glance at the strange and terrifying green mask made him shudder. Utu’s eyes were almond shaped, the mouth was oversized, with nightmarishly thick red lips, and his ears were pointed. Golden streaks slashed the sun god’s green cheeks, and his forehead was adorned with three huge red rubies. Utu was hardly sunny; rather, he radiated a fierce malevolence.
“He’s very … intimidating,” Bob said.
“Yes, he is,” Emile said. “The Sumerians didn’t have cozy gods. And if you think the picture is hellish, well, you should see the real thing sometime. It’s very powerful. It had to be because our boy here was not only the sun, the giver of life, but you can see from his fierceness, he was something else, too …”
“He looks angry,” Bob said, realizing at once that it was a lame and obvious statement.
“That’s right,” Bardan said. “Old Utu was also the avenger of the dead. The god of justice and vengeance.”
“Right,” Bob said. “Well, I can definitely see why you value the piece.”
Bob handed the book back to Emile Bardan and sat back down in his seat.
“Where the hell was I?” Emile said, looking down at the floor.
“You were talking about Colin Edwards,” Bob said.
“Yes,” Emile Bardan said. His voice was pitched higher when he spoke about Edwards, and he gritted his teeth.
“We’ve known each other all our adult lives. I met him in Cambridge years ago, when we were both students. We ended up in the business and we often bid against each other at auctions. I usually won, and Colin has hated me ever since. He’s a rich, smooth bastard and something else, too: a thief. He’s been involved in any number of art thefts, but he’s very slick. Never been caught.”
Bob felt hopeful for the first time. This was the most Emile had ever told him. Now the trick was to keep him talking.
“I’m not sure I understand, how he’s related to the mask?”